From Where You Write
“Yesterday we obeyed kings and bent our necks before emperors, but today we kneel only to the truth.” Khalil Gibran (artist, poet, writer)
In Robert Olen Butler’s book, From Where You Dream (the Process of Writing Fiction), he says, “the best way to write fiction is to sit down each day and think about a scene, write a few lines about that scene on an index card and then write another one.” Apparently you do this until you have the scenes you think you need to complete a novel.
You then arrange those cards in the order you think your story will unfold and you begin to write while staying focused on scenes. He calls this process ‘dream storming’ and makes an argument that it is better than writing multiple drafts because, “no matter how open minded the writer is, she has to make approximations in the first draft, then she must make approximations in the second, and more in the third, adding more rough, headlong stuff in the fourth.
“If the book is at all complex, the writer who develops drafts will hit forks in the road, over and over, and must choose this fork instead of another one. By the time she gets to the end, the novel is sprawling in whatever way it sprawls. At this point, it is difficult to go back and take the other fork she faced on page 30. With this system, all the forks are fine—you follow this one, you follow that one, you go down this fork in the sixth week of dream storming, in the tenth week, you go down that one, as far as you want to go—because at each point you are rewriting and re-dreaming the book on the level of structure.”
Although Olen argues you start at the beginning and work to the end, he says you have to be true to whatever process works for you as a writer.
Enter Zadie Smith. In a lecture I found of hers some time ago and now can’t put my hands on, Smith defined two sorts of writers, the Macro Planner and the Micro Manager. The first makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure all before he writes a title page. Because of “this structural security the Macro Planner has a great deal of freedom of movement.” It is not uncommon for this writer to start writing a novel in the middle. In some ways, this sounds like Olen’s approach. When I met Terry Fallis (The Best Laid Plans) in Whistler for a reading event my group had organized, he talked about using a similar approach to his writing. I remember him saying that he wrote extensive outlines. Some 85 pages if I remember correctly. Then when he sat down to write, he filled in the blanks. It sounded so reasonable to me at the time. I wondered if I could do that.
In contrast, the Micro Manager starts with the first sentence and continues on until the last sentence. For the Micro Manager, plot and structure are contained in what Smith calls, ‘the sensibility of the sentence’.
I think I’m a Micro Manager sort of writer, but perhaps I use both approaches.
I usually do engage in some planning and outlining before I get started. It gives me a bit of a road map, some sense of security, false as it may be.
I tend to forget about the outline part way through the first or second chapter. As words, then sentences find their way to the page, my characters become petulant. They won’t allow me to guide them. They insist they have a mind of their own and will prove it to me by doing whatever they please. I never know how my stories will end until the final sentence is written and rewritten about 100 times.
I think my process changes from project to project depending on what I’m working on. What worked for the one novel may not work for the next. This is infinitely frustrating to me.
But in the midst of my frustration, I remind myself to listen to my characters, follow them wherever they want to go. They will reveal their lives and the truth behind their stories. In the end, truth is the only thing I seek.
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